California law targets abuse of power and sexual exploitation

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January 4, 2018

Op-Ed by California State Senator Connie M. Leyva and Legal Momentum Senior Staff Attorney Jennifer Becker

Over the past several months, a loud national conversation has been taking place about sexual harassment and assault — in Hollywood, in business, the judiciary, and in the halls of Congress and state legislatures. The conduct revealed is not new and all stems from the same root cause — abuse of power.

For as long as we’ve documented history, people in power have chosen to abuse it. These abuses are perpetrated in many forms, but abusing power for sexual gratification is an age-old variety. The current national conversation, the #MeToo movement, and all of the women (and men) coming forward will change nothing without meaningful channels to report and respond to these abuses of power and sexual exploitation.

In October, Gov. Jerry Brown signed SB500 into law. By adding just a few words to California’s extortion statute, this law will protect Californians from “sextortion” by providing a clear path to report this abuse to law enforcement and a tool for prosecutors to seek accountability from offenders. Sextortion is where the currency demanded is not money but sex or sexual images. It is, at its very core, an abuse of power. Look at the narratives being told by victims and survivors in today’s conversation about sexual harassment — sextortion is woven throughout.

Providing tools for law enforcement is critical, as these crimes are often too difficult and painful for victims to rely solely on civil remedies. SB500 gives prosecutors a way to bring these sexual perpetrators to justice through the criminal courts.

The problem of sextortion has proliferated in the digital age as the Internet and social media began to drive how we interact with each other. Abusers have used technology and social media — while shielded behind computer and phone screens — to create or increase their power over countless victims. These victims, disproportionately girls and women, stripped of their sense of safety and dignity, too often have suffered in silence. The perpetrators believed they were shielded from the reach of justice. We must do more to pull them from the safe haven they have enjoyed for far too long.

SB500, championed by the bipartisan Legislative Women’s Caucus, passed both houses of the Legislature without a single “no” vote. Abuses of power in the form of sexual harassment and assault cannot be tolerated in any facet of our society. And the ability for everyone to fully engage with society in today’s world means having full and safe access to Internet technologies and social media.

Other states have also acted recently to close legal loopholes that allowed sextortion offenders to escape accountability. In 2017, Utah, Alabama, Arkansas and Texas passed similar legislation with bipartisan support. Bills to combat sexual extortion are pending in New York, Arizona, the District of Columbia and New Jersey, and federal legislation has also been introduced with bipartisan sponsors.

We call upon other states to follow this lead, to build upon this momentum and to update their laws to ensure abuses of power like sexual extortion do not remain hidden or go unpunished.

State Sen. Connie M. Leyva, D-Chino, authored SB500 and is vice chair of the Legislative Women’s Caucus. Jennifer M. Becker is an attorney for Legal Momentum, the oldest legal advocacy group for women in the United States.